Thursday, June 13, 2013

Praise ("The Miracles of Father Kapaun" by Roy Wenzl and Travis Heying)

At 140 pages, Wenzl and Heying's The Miracles of Father Kapaun is a slim book by any standard. What's more, the authors have managed to make it two books in one. The first, which occupies the book's first hundred or so pages, is the story of Father Emil Kapaun, a Kansas-born Catholic priest who volunteers for service in the Korean War, despite having served in World War II, and is captured by the Chinese military, along with hundreds of other American POWs. As he and the other men are slowly starved, humiliated, beaten, and killed by their captors, Kapaun works tirelessly to keep the men alive, their spirits high, and their faith--in God or any higher power, in each other, in themselves--in tact. Kapaun dies before the prisoners are freed, his body wracked illness and starvation, and the men mourn his loss more than perhaps any of the other POWs. These hundred pages, written in a matter-of-fact way that eschews literary flourishes and relies almost squarely on the first-hand accounts of the men who served with Kapaun in both war and imprisonment--in Hell and Purgatory--are a fascinating read, both engrossing and historical without being overly sentimental or concerned with literary entertainment.
It's the second half of the book--those last 30 to 40 pages--that are the problem. In hoping to support an ongoing attempt to get Kapaun canonized by the Catholic Church, which would make him forever a saint, his supports--a vast number of veterans, Catholic worshippers, and non-Catholic supporters--have worked to document evidence of miracles performed by Kapaun.* And while the three stories they have found are both heartbreaking and inspiring--in one, a young man who has fractured his skull and is expected to die from brain trauma is healed "miraculously" and can now walk; in the other, a girl with a mysterious degenerative illness is saved "miraculously" from certain death and now lives a full life once again--they are a marked contrast with the book's beginning chapters. The first hundred pages are the story of Kapaun's struggles, as detailed by the men who served with him; there is no emotion other than in the men's memories, and the authors remain almost entirely neutral and objective in their reporting, which gives the events surrounding Kapaun's capture and ongoing strength even more credibility. The last 40 pages, however, are the opposite. The events depicted have no clear scientific explanation according to the physicians involved--and in the case of the girl, both physicians are non-Catholics professing a miracle--and are written about as such:  Wenzl and Heying's bias towards Kapaun and his potential canonization is on clear display--they want these events to be the miracles they're seen as, and their fawning over the possibilities they entail becomes tiresome.
That's not to say authors can't be biased, especially in a situation like this. After all, this book was written because of Kapaun's move towards sainthood, so it seems only natural to highlight how the man is still affecting people today, even if it's less about the flesh-and-blood man feeding them as they starve in a POW camp and  more about the long-departed man being the recipient of a desperate--and fulfilled--prayer. But when both stories--his role as soldier, based in objective detail, and his role as a saint, based in emotional bias--are combined into the same book, it muddles the message and detracts from a story that, regardless of current events, needs to be told the way it happened, if for no other reason than the sake of history.
*Kapaun's supporters were also working to get him the Medal of Honor. On April 11 of this year--after Wenzl and Heying's book was finished--President Obama bestowed the honor posthumously on Kapaun, bringing to close a mission that has been ongoing for the last half-century.